Four months after mission opened in capital with much hoopla

Paraguay reverses Jerusalem embassy move; fuming Israel shuts Asunción mission

Netanyahu says ties will be ‘clouded’ by decision to return embassy to Tel Aviv; Palestinians say they brokered agreement with new Paraguay president last month

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Paraguay President Horacio Cartes (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inaugurate Paraguay's new embassy in Jerusalem, May 21, 2018 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Paraguay President Horacio Cartes (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inaugurate Paraguay's new embassy in Jerusalem, May 21, 2018 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Less than four months after Paraguay ceremoniously opened its new embassy in Jerusalem, the South American country said Wednesday it would return it to its original location in Tel Aviv, sparking Israeli anger over the surprise decision.

The move is a major blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s drive for international recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; Paraguay was one of two countries to move its embassy following the US decision to recognize the city as the capital and move its own embassy in May.

In response to the reversal, Israel angrily announced that it was closing its embassy in Paraguay, saying Asunción’s decision cast a cloud over bilateral relations.

“Paraguay wants to contribute to an intensification of regional diplomatic efforts to achieve a broad, fair and lasting peace in the Middle East,” the country’s new Foreign Minister Luis Alberto Castiglioni told reporters in explaining his country’s sudden about-face.

The issue of Jerusalem is one of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s “most complex components,” the Foreign Ministry in Asuncion said in a statement. In this context, “Paraguay considers that it has to be addressed through negotiations by the concerned parties, within the framework of the relevant international organizations decisions.”

Paraguayan Foreign Minister Luis Alberto Castiglioni speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Ministry, in Asuncion, to announce Paraguay is moving its embassy in Israel back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, on September 05, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / NORBERTO DUARTE)

The government considers it “appropriate to re-establish the headquarters” of its Israel embassy in its previous location,” the statement went on. “This measure is adopted in the meantime a broader approach to the subject can be achieved [sic].”

Netanyahu angrily denounced the decision, which he said would reverberate through the countries’ relationship.

“Israel views with utmost gravity the extraordinary decision by Paraguay, which will cloud bilateral relations,” he said in a statement.

He instructed Israel’s embassy in Asunción to close immediately and recalled ambassador Ze’ev Harel.

The embassy in Asunción had just reopened two years ago, after it had been shut in 2002 due to what the government said were budgetary constraints.

Paraguay’s President Horacio Cartes (C, wearing sash), Vice President Alicia Pucheta (3-L) and President-elect Mario Abdo Benitez (L) attend a military parade celebrating the country’s 207th anniversary of independence, in Asunción, on May 15, 2018. (AFP Photo/Norberto Duarte)

Deputy Minister Michael Oren also denounced Paraguay’s move, saying it will “certainly harm our bilateral relations” and may also negatively impact Asuncion’s relations with Washington.

“The world appreciates countries that stand firm behind bold decisions and not countries that change their mind after a few months,” he said.

The Palestinians celebrated Paraguay’s reversal.

“We express our deep gratitude to Paraguay and the Paraguayan leadership for its wise decision to withdraw its embassy from the occupied city of Jerusalem which comes in respect to the rights of the Palestinian people,” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said Paraguay had pledged two weeks ago to return the embassy to Tel Aviv during a visit by Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki to the country for the inauguration of new President Mario Abdo Benítez.

Maliki “expresses his appreciation and gratitude to the Paraguayan president and his foreign minister for moving the embassy back and for their commitment to international law,” the ministry said in a statement.

Benítez had already been elected when then-president Horacio Cartes made the decision to move the embassy in May and was not consulted, which made the decision somewhat controversial in Paraguay.

On May 21, Cartes joined Netanyahu in a ceremony celebrating the opening of the country’s new embassy in Jerusalem’s Malha Technological Park.

“A great day for Israel; a great day for Paraguay — a great day for our friendship,” Netanyahu said at the time. “We have no better friends than you. Thank you, Horacio. Thank you, Paraguay.”

Cartes called the embassy opening a “historic event,” adding that this occasion “is of special significance because it expresses the sincere friendship and brave solidarity between Paraguay and Israel.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (R) congratulates new Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez at his swearing-in ceremony on August 16, 2018. (Jerusalem Municipality)

The new government’s decision to return its embassy to Tel Aviv follows the recent decision of Colombia to recognize a Palestinian state, much to Israel’s chagrin. (Paraguay formally recognized a Palestinian state in 2011.)

Once Paraguay closes its Jerusalem embassy, only two countries will have their embassies in the capital: the US and Guatemala.

Until 2012, Paraguay’s embassy was located in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion, until it was closed after Israel shut its mission in Asunción due to what the Foreign Ministry at the time called “budgetary constraints.”

In July 2013, president-elect Cartes announced the country would reopen its embassy in Israel, this time in Tel Aviv. Three years later, Israel reopened its Asunción mission.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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